[Op-Ed] Why Making Tech Companies Terrorism Monitors is a Horrible Idea

Keeping us safe from terrorist activity is not the job of Silicon Valley---it's Congress

many small businesses vulnerable to cyberthreats

After a spate of terrorist attacks, we are a shaken nation. Politicians and leaders are doing less to quell our anxiety and more to stoke our fears. Now, a politician is introducing legislation requiring tech companies to report terrorist activities.

[Related: More Terrorism: Diasporans React to Yola Bombing in Nigeria]

On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced the Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act, a bill requiring technology companies to report online terrorist activity to law enforcement.

Sen. Feinstein actually tried to get this bill passed earlier this year. It was scrapped after several tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter, complained about the vague language of the bill and just how overall it is a bad idea.

They are right mainly for a few reasons; some of which are technical.

This new generation of terrorists is incredibly tech-savvy. They use social media to spread propaganda and to connect with angry, disgruntled recruits willing to carry out their extremist madness. A study in March revealed that ISIS may have more than 40,000 associated Twitter accounts.

Twitter has been monitoring and shutting down accounts associated with terrorists. However, as one of the authors of the March study said, “You don’t have the manpower to go into every one of their accounts and determine their origin.”

If Facebook were a country, it would be the most populated nation on Earth. Twitter reached 300 million users earlier this year. To monitor, in real-time, a user-base that is astoundingly vast is a logistic impossibility; from both a technology and a manpower standpoint, and it’s simply impractical.

Let’s say Facebook and Twitter could shutter any terrorist-related account and activity. There are other means for extremists to digitally connect. There’s TOR—a network of onion routers comprised of thousands and privately operated servers that use encryption and relays to conceal location and usage of anyone who accesses. TOR, along with the Deep Web, which are websites and pages not indexed by engines such as Google and Bing, would be the preferred means of access for terrorists. Using these un-managed, “darknet” networks make extremists even harder for authorities to track.

Another reason Feinstein’s proposition is so ludicrous is about definition. From Feinstein’s website:

The bill would not require companies to monitor customers or undertake any additional action to turn up terrorist activity. Rather, it requires that if companies become aware of terrorist activity such as attack planning, recruitment or distribution of terrorist material, they must report that information to law enforcement.

She likens the bill to existing laws surrounding the digital transmission of child pornography. But it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s easy to identify child pornography. Is Mark Zuckerberg really qualified to pinpoint what constitutes “terrorist activity?” Already, Twitter and Facebook do a fairly good job of monitoring hate and violent activities. But if the CIA and other authorities—people trained to recognize terrorism—have a hard time thwarting terrorist acts before they are committed, should we put that responsibility on computer nerds?

Finally, it’s a slippery slope in deciding who deems what as “terrorist activity.” It is so far-fetched a fear to consider that perhaps a President Trump and his minions would consider the social media activity of #BlackLivesMatter as “terrorist activity?” Maybe not.

Keeping us safe as a nation is not the job of Silicon Valley; it’s Congress, and they shouldn’t be allowed to ‘pass the buck.’